Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 12, 1858 --- An Announcement from Mr. Dickens

On the front page of his weekly newspaper, Household Words, headlined PERSONAL, Charles Dickens announces the breakup of his marriage. Only days before, after an acrimonious wrangle over the details, he had left his wife of 22 years, nee Catherine Hogarth, mother of their ten children.

Dickens tells his readers: "Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing [has] lately been brought to an arrangement which involves no anger or ill-will." Dickens also denounces the rumors linking him either with his wife's sister, Georgina, or with the young actress, Ellen Ternan. The always indiscreet Thackeray, when told Dickens was having an affair with Georgina, blurted, "Oh, no, it's with an actress!" The New York Times had written that Dickens and his paramour had eloped to Boulogne. Labeling the allegations, "most grossly false, most monstrous and most cruel," Dickens concludes, "Whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and fouly as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before Heaven and earth."

Intimates of the author knew of his domestic difficulties - and his relationship with Miss Ternan - but had urged a quiet separation. Dickens would not listen, "A dismal failure has to be borne, and there is an end." In a letter to his American publisher, soon printed in England, Dickens referred to Catherine's "peculiarities of character" and "mental disorders," concluding "We are in all respects... wonderfully unsuited to each other."

The tide of public opinion began to turn; The Liverpool Mercury dismissed the letter with "indignant reprobation." A friend of Dickens recalled "People were all but bewildered and almost stunned." When Dickens left on a reading tour of the provinces, however, it soon became clear none of this mattered to his public. From one stop, he wrote a friend, "The welcome they gave me was astounding in its affectionate recognition of the late trouble ... I never saw such a sight or heard such a sound."

Efforts by friends to effect a reconciliation were fruitless. Dickens, in response to the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, answered: "That figure [Catherine] is out of my life forever more (except to darken it) and my desire is, Never to see it again."

Not the most flattering photograph of Catherine Dickens (1815-1879)

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